Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

I just finished reading Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter. In fact, I finished it in under 24 hours; I could not put it down. She’s a kindred spirit in many ways. I’m disappointed that I missed a chance to meet her. She was in Madison in October for the book fest. But, as often happens with interesting people who come to town, I wasn’t paying attention and read that she’d been here after the fact.

In the book, Carpenter describes building her urban farm in an economically depressed neighborhood in Oakland, California. She grew up in rural Idaho and Washington state, the daughter of two 1970s “back-to-the-land” hippies. There she learned to love raising her own food and to aspire to a degree of self-sufficiency. However, she also learned that she did not like the isolation of rural life; that she preferred the culture and energy of a city. With her mini-farm in Oakland, she attempts to have the best of both worlds.

While Carpenter is straightforward in stating her preference for city life, her social nature and love of people emerges organically in the telling of her tale. Her genuine fondness for her homeless neighbor Bobby, who lives in an abandoned car, her patience with children who stop by to see her animals, and her generosity with the fruits of her labor are evident on every page.

Carpenter begins by clearing a vacant lot next door to her apartment and building raised beds for vegetables. Eventually, she adds fruit trees, raspberries, and strawberries. An experienced bee-keeper, she sets up her hive and orders baby chickens, ducks and turkeys.

Many community gardens in inner cities start much as Carpenter started hers, by planting, with or without permission, on vacant lots or other disused land. Nobody seems to mind; in fact, these gardens are welcome improvements in decaying urban environments. Residents appreciate having access to fresh veggies – expensive for low income households, and often not available at any price, as supermarket chains seldom locate stores in these neighborhoods.

In contrast, I’m learning, much to my dismay, that it’s fairly typical for middle-class professional people to look askance at community gardens, or even vociferously resist the creation of one, in their neighborhoods. So her opportunity to just start planting, to be a guerrilla gardener of sorts, is very appealing. I don’t romanticize her situation, however. There is violence and danger where she lives – though she seems to negotiate these situations and relationships successfully.

Eventually, Carpenter’s love of pork, and especially cured meats, leads her to decide to raise a couple of pigs. At one point, a neighbor with limited English approaches her, child in hand, to complain about the stench from her pigs. The smell nearly made his daughter vomit, he says. Carpenter writes that she apologized profusely, and that she felt like a “complete ass.” She asks, “Who would want me for a neighbor?”

Really, Novella? I thought. It took this complaint to finally wake you up? The choking odor of fish guts you scavenged from a dumpster to feed those champion poop producers didn’t tip you off earlier?

I certainly wouldn’t want to be her neighbor if she were raising pigs – but I’d surely want to live within biking distance, to work with her in her garden and talk with her about this business of growing to sustain life.

In most ways, she appears to be a generous and tolerant neighbor. Conscious that the land on which she grows is not hers, that none of us really “own” the land, and that we all need to eat, she allows people to pick vegetables and fruits from her garden. She restricts foragers only with signs indicating when certain items will be ripe and admonishing them to leave some produce for others. Similarly, she shares meat from the animals she raises with her neighbors.

It appears that the Universe does reward those who give freely. In a turn of events that would require suspension of disbelief in a film or novel, Carpenter happens to meet a classically trained salumi artisan after rummaging in the dumpster behind his upscale restaurant in Berkeley to find yet more food for her pigs. He agrees to teach her the art of salumi, to make prosciutto, salami, and pancetta from her pigs - and they become friends.

I see Carpenter’s experience as the inner city, moderate-to-low-income answer to Barbara Kingsolver’s journey told in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Both women put a great deal of labor and thought into their gardens and animal husbandry as they strive towards their goals of a sustainable, healthful connection to their food. However, Carpenter farms a vacant lot in an inner city that belongs to someone else. Kingsolver moves to a farm her husband already owned when she met him. At one point, she describes harvesting cherries from an existing orchard on the property. Both women are serious foodies. Where Kingsolver attends
Rikki Carroll’s cheese workshop (today these workshops range from $150-$350), Carpenter apprentices to a salumi artisan after scrounging in his dumpster, in exchange for a leg of one of her pigs which will be transformed into prosciutto.

I love and highly recommend both books. But I think Carpenter’s experience describes what will be possible for more of us than does Kingsolver’s. More of us will become downwardly mobile, due to fundamental changes in our energy situation and economy. More of us live in cities, and will continue to do so, than in rural areas. Certainly Carpenter’s project is more relevant to me. Although I don’t live in an economically depressed neighborhood, I also seek to combine the social life of a city with a degree of self-sufficiency. I’ve written my critique of lone homesteading
here. At this point, I believe my biggest challenge will be convincing middle class people of the value of urban agriculture, that we need community gardens and public orchards here, too. Maybe that will be my book to write.

No comments: